WHAT BOOK would author Francis Spufford take to a desert island?

WHAT BOOK would author Francis Spufford take to a desert island?

  • Author Francis Spufford is reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Tom Stoppard
  • He says that he would take The Book of Psalms from the Bible to a desert island
  • Reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit when he was six gave him the reading bug

. . . are you reading now?

Hermione Lee’s biography of Tom Stoppard, a riot of cleverness and male peacockry and subtle feeling underneath.

I actually met him once and was star-struck and tongue-tied, so it was deeply pleasurable to find the young Stoppard reacting just the same way to Harold Pinter, whom he tapped on the shoulder at a play. ‘What?’ snarled Pinter.

‘I don’t remember any more,’ said Stoppard later. ‘Perhaps I fainted.’

What I really wanted to know about was the process of imaginative alchemy that could turn the conversations of a bunch of 19th-century Russian intellectuals into the day I spent watching Stoppard’s The Coast Of Utopia at the National Theatre nearly 20 years ago: one of the most elating and magical days I’ve ever spent.

But biography, even excellent biography, can only get you so far. There’s still a mystery about where writing comes from — what it draws on, how it comes together. Perhaps that’s how it ought to be.

Author Francis Spufford (pictured) is currently reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Tom Stoppard

…would you take to a desert island?

Honestly? The Book of Psalms from the Bible. It’s got voices in it crying out in every human mood from heartbreak to awe, from despair to delight.

But if you print it in tiny type on thin paper, it doesn’t take up much room, so I’m going to cheat and tuck my psalms inside Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, one of the greatest historical novels ever written and a permanent inspiration to me since I turned to writing fiction. Sly, brilliantly perceptive about human motives, hilariously deadpan, utterly concise, she was a master. And she could slip inside past times, and past places, like a hand easing into a glove.

I used her work as a road map when I was writing my previous novel Golden Hill, about 18th-century New York — and even though with my current book I’m operating much closer to home in terms of history, in London over the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of this one, she has still been a brilliant source for how to register the changing colours of the decades.

He says that he would take The Book of Psalms from the Bible to a desert island with him

. . . first gave you the reading bug?

Tolkien’s The Hobbit, when I was six and stuck at home in bed with mumps. But then the Narnia books, which I virtually lived inside for years and years of my childhood, and which are still reverberating now in what I want when I read, and what I try to do when I write.

. . . left you cold?

Well, I just gave up on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Ada, halfway through. It ought to have worked for me, since it’s about time, and I’ve been thinking about how we live in time all the way through writing Light Perpetual.

And on the whole I’m in favour of big, weird books an author has pulled into existence to please themself. But with this one, I found the writing insanely finicky, the take on the characters creepy, and the pleasures the author was awarding himself just . . . repulsive in combination.

It was a helping of trifle with anchovies. Yech. No thanks.

Light Perpetual, by Francis Spufford, is published by Faber, £16.99.

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